Sunday Salon: Scary Stories

Because today is Halloween, I thought it would be fun to talk about the stories that scare us today.

I’ve always considered myself easily scared. My horror of horror began with an ill-advised viewing of The Amityville Horror when I was around eight or nine years old. My brother thought it was very important that I know that this was based on a true story, and I believed him—and didn’t sleep properly for quite a long time. By the time my Amityville-related fears passed, insomnia and night fears had become an ingrained habit—and so had horror films. I grew up during the hey-day of the 1980s slasher films, and I saw lots of them. (My Bloody Valentine, Happy Birthday to Me, Halloween and its sequels, and the Friday the 13th films all stand out in my memory.) And they kept me good and scared.

For some reason, though, I hardly ever read scary books as a preteen or teenager. I did read a couple of early Christopher Pike books and some of Lois Duncan’s , but I was too old for R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books when they came along. I also didn’t get into Stephen King (although I watched lots of film adaptations of his books—Cujo, Christine, Salem’s Lot, Children of the Corn). I suppose I had a sense that scary books for adults would be way too scary for my younger self. By the time I started reading scary books, long after I graduated college, I had become a person who is less easily scared than I used to be.

Still, there are some books that have grabbed at me and given me chills. Sometimes the chills come from a scary moment in an otherwise non-scary book, sometimes the chills come from the idea behind the events of the book, and sometimes the chills are more visceral, more about the gross-out moment than actual fear. These are a few of the chill-inducing books that come to mind. I liked some of these more than others, but all of them included moments that shook me up:

  • The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien. For the most part, I don’t find this book scary, but the scene in the mines of Moria is absolutely terrifying.
  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. The random murder described in this book is particularly frightening because the Clutter family had done nothing to know the murderers into their lives.
  • Nineteen Seventy-Four by David Peace. The descriptions of the bodies in this book horrified me. The idea that someone would do that—just so, so awful.
  • Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill. There’s a scene in which a spirit takes control of the main character’s girlfriend that I found extraordinarily upsetting, so much so that I nearly didn’t finish the book. Plus, the situation kept getting more and more inescapable, and the tension was nearly too much for me.
  • Misery by Stephen King. A lot of the scariness of this book comes in the combination of gross-out moments and the inescapability of the situation.
  • The Hot Zone by Robert Preston. It’s one thing to read about a fake virus unleashed in the world (as in The Stand), but it’s a whole other thing to learn how easy it would be for a devastating virus to escape into the world.
  • The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin. In this book, it’s the idea behind the story that terrifies. Women are so often told what they’re supposed to be, and Levin takes that reality to literal extremes.
  • The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist. This is another book in which the situation is scary, even if the book itself is not. I found the thought of deciding that certain people were dispensable to be chilling.

So are you easily frightened by what you read? What books have terrified you?


Notes from a Reading Life

Books Read

Currently Reading

  • Paradise Lost by John Milton (church book club)
  • Be Near Me by Andrew O’Hagan (audio)
  • A Void by Georges Perec

New Acquisitions

  • The Tapestry of Love by Rosy Thornton. Review copy from author.
  • The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard. Review copy from Harper Books.
  • The Radleys by Matt Haig. Review copy from Simon and Schuster.
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20 Responses to Sunday Salon: Scary Stories

  1. Sherry Clark says:

    The most recent “scary” book I have read is Sarah’s Key. I was so horrified by the idea that all those babies/children were left to die that I couldn’t even read what the author wrote about it. I cried instead.

  2. I don’t usually go in for horror, but the Siege of Gondor gave me chills during the The Lord of the Rings reread.

  3. Vasilly says:

    I’m not easily frightened by what I read but the last book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy scared the crap out of me. I still haven’t figured out why.

    • Teresa says:

      That is interesting, especially that you don’t know what scared you about it. I didn’t like that book (loved the first in the series and liked the second). With the third, I was too irritated to be scared or to notice anything scary about it.

  4. I totally agree with you on In Cold Blood – it’s the most creepy and frightening true crime book I have ever read exactly because of the random factor. There’s this sense after you read the book that no one is safe that I find really unsettling.

  5. Jenny says:

    I try to steer clear of scary books. I like scary-supernatural, because that couldn’t be real. But horror films are not good for my poor little brain. In seventh grade, a substitute teacher put on Scream and it traumatized me for YEARS.

    • Teresa says:

      Heh. I loved Scream, mostly because I grew up on the movies it was parodying, and it was sort of cathartic to laugh at them. But I can’t imagine showing it in school, especially to 7th graders or younger.

  6. Frances says:

    The Shining scared the pants off me as a teenager. I find the movie frightening too. As a kid I could not get enough Stephen King but hardly ever read anything frightening now. But The Small Hand by Susan Hill is my reading choice for today. She frightens me in a less intense way. :) Happy Halloween!

    • Teresa says:

      I read The Shining for the first time just a few years ago, mostly at Jenny’s urging. Haunted houses used to scare me a lot, but I think I’ve mostly gotten over it because I didn’t find The Shining all that scary—it wasn’t the kind of scary that stuck with me after I put it down anyway.

  7. Jeanne says:

    I don’t read books I think will be scary, or if I do, my imagination doesn’t embody the scariest scenes, which means that movies are much scarier for me–the Helm’s Deep scenes in LOTR, for example. I was scared of the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz movie as a kid–so much so that I delayed showing my kids that movie, thinking they’d have nightmares–and then they just said “animatronic owls, mom? Not scary!”

    • Teresa says:

      Kids today are just so jaded, aren’t they? They can see right through the special effects.

      I’m like you in that I’m more often scared by movies than books. With a book, I find that it’s easier to not let the visual images get into my head, but not with movies, and it’s those visual images that scare me. There’s a shot at the end of The Blair Witch Project, for example, that still gives me the heebie jeebies when I think of it. But that doesn’t stop me from watching horror movies. I’ve gotten where I can usually shake off the scary stuff after the movie is over.

  8. litlove says:

    I find it quite hard to be scared by books because you have to constantly give consent to the act of reading. I can put the book down, pause to think, let my mind wander, even resist an emotional response while reading if I feel that way, and this all breaks the moment. I think to be scared you have to feel passive and trapped – like in front of a movie (and I SO avoid scary movies). So the books that scare me tend not to be horror stories, but novels that feature ignorance and stupidity in the human race – the climate change books are really scaring me right now. Robert Edrich’s Salvage was awful because it could so easily happen.

    • Teresa says:

      Like I told Jeanne, I’m also more easily scared by movies. I like your point about giving consent. I have to decide whether to immerse myself in the experience or skim lightly over the scary bits. There are some writers who can sometimes pull me in almost against my will. Stephen King can be like that, which I guess is why he’s considered the master of horror.

      And yes, the real-life stuff can be just as scary as the fantastic. That’s what made The Hot Zone so scary for me. I could imagine it happening—plus, the site of the lab in the book is very close to my old office. The pictures of the locations were so vivid in my mind, and it was incredibly easy for me to imagine worst-case scenarios.

  9. Kathleen says:

    I would have to agree with several of yours that you list as scariest for you. I would also add Helter Skelter to that list. That book scared me to death when I read it at about the age of 12 or 13. I picked it up at a house when I was babysitting and it gave me nightmares for weeks!

  10. Rebecca Reid says:

    I too am easily scared. And I hate being scared! Edgar Allan Poe is about as much as I can take, and I hate that too!

  11. Bumble says:

    Well, for different reasons, The Handmaid’s Tale always terrifies me.

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